In the days, weeks and months following the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, there were many curling fans across Canada wondering “…what is wrong with Canadian curling”  simply because Canada had failed to win a medal in men’s and women’s curling for the first time since the sport was reinstated as a medal sport at the 1998 Olympics. 

One of the themes that came out of the Olympic competition in Pyeongchang, specifically in the women’s event, is that 4 of the 5 teams that defeated Canada at the Olympics were either coached by Canadians or had been advised by Canadians in the lead-up to the Games.  To many in the Canadian curling community, it felt like Canada’s exported curling knowledge and expertise were coming back to haunt our national teams and many started to question why so many Canadians were coaching teams, even leading entire national curling programs, around the world instead of coaching in Canada.  Less than a year later, this conversation was amplified when two-time Olympian and 2010 Olympic gold medallist Marc Kennedy stated the following in a well-circulated interview with CBC Sports:

“In my opinion, the international teams have gotten really, really good with our help,” Kennedy said at the time. “I don’t like seeing our curling knowledge going to other countries.”

Kennedy’s comments came while he was working for Curling Canada as a consultant during his one-year self-imposed sabbatical.  His comments did not fall on deaf ears and there was a renewed call among Canadian curling fans to “fix” Curling Canada’s coaching policies so that more Canadian coaches would be tempted to stay in Canada.  Whether by coincidence or not, before the end of the 2018-19 season the wheels were set in a motion for the creation of the “High-Performance Consulting Program” (HPCP) which was formally announced at Curling Canada’s National Curling Congress earlier this year.  The HPCP is managed by a group that includes Panel Chair Rick Lang, Marc Kennedy, Jill Officer, Scott Pfeifer and Jennifer Ferris. Whether the HCPC.

The creation of the HPCP has been well-received throughout the Canadian curling community as a step in the right direction and it has been applauded by many who believe that the exodus of Canadian coaches to other countries will now subside.  However, the main thrust behind the creation of the HPCP is not to stem the exodus of Canadian coaches to other countries, the main thrust of the HPCP is to allow experienced curling champions, past and present, to coach Canadian teams at provincial, national and international events without being certified through the National Coaching Certification Program, which had become an obstacle for several individuals interested in coaching top Canadian teams.

“This program isn’t intended to stop curlers from going to other countries where they can receive more compensation to coach” HPCP board member Marc Kennedy told From the Hack, “it is definitely about giving our Canadian teams an opportunity to have a top-level player on their bench!”

Glenn Howard who spent a few seasons coaching Eve Muirhead’s Scottish team, including at the 2018 Olympics, feels that the HPCP is a step in the right direction.

“ I definitely think you will see an influx of Canadian curlers, past and present, step forward and help out,” Howard told From the Hack, “the realistic assumption is having a ‘pool’ of Canadian coaches that can be accessed on a part-time basis leading up to national championships.”

In other words, the HPCP is as much about allowing past champions such as Jean-Michel Menard to be on the bench for a team from Quebec at the Brier or Kim Kelly to be on the bench of  a team from Nova Scotia at the Scotties than it is about “opening the door” for Wayne Middaugh, Ian Tetley, Mike Harris and other Canadians currently coaching foreign teams to sign on with Canadian teams. 

As Rick Lang, the Chair of the HPCP Panel told From the Hack:

“Canada is not in a position to compensate certain coaches what they will receive from other federations because their programs are typically focused on one or two high-performance teams per gender whereas in Canada we currently have 8 women’s teams, 7 men’s teams and 9 mixed doubles teams in the National Team Program.”

It would be cost-prohibitive for Curling Canada to pay for individual coaches for each of the 24 teams in its National Team Program (NTP) like other federations do when they only have a handful of teams in their programs.  What Curling Canada has set-up is an in-house high-performance team of coaches, mental performance experts and trainers that are available to work with each of the players/teams in the NTP.  Some of the Canadian teams that are currently at, or near, the top of the world rankings work with their own coaches while others depend on the coaching resources offered through the NTP.  What the HPCP will do is provide more options to the NTP teams, and many of the other Tier 1 and Tier 2 teams, when looking for coaches with competitive experience at the national and international levels.

Howard told From that Hack that, “…there is a ‘hope’ that some of the Canadian curlers that have foreign coaching positions will come back,” but he went on to add that, “the biggest barrier that I see is available funding for these coaches…the burden of payment will rest on the individual teams and it will make it impossible for most teams to afford some of the Canadian coaches currently working for other federations.”

To be clear, compensation for coaches working for other national federations varies greatly with the only constant being that expenses are typically covered.  Some coaches have contracts where they get paid a set amount for the season while other coaches only get paid for days they spend with the team.  Several sources I have spoken with feel that some of the Canadian coaches or consultants that will emerge through the HPCP will work for a daily fee while others will earn a percentage of a team’s winnings, especially if the arrangement is only for events such as provincials and the Scotties/Brier.

The reality is that in a free market there is little that Curling Canada can do to stop Canadians from accepting coaching positions abroad and, as we’ve established, that is certainly not the main thrust behind the HPCP.  Will Wayne Middaugh and others leave their positions with other national federations to coach in Canada?  Perhaps, but even if those individuals continue to work with foreign teams, the HPCP will now provide Canadian teams with greater access to a pool potential coaches.

Which takes us back to the real purpose behind the HPCP which, as Rick Lang puts it, “is about providing Canadian curlers with access to our best resources, fellow Canadian curlers that have had success at the highest levels.”

Laura Walker, who won a bronze medal at the 2018 World Mixed Doubles Championship with Kirk Muyres and who is part of the NTP, believes that having access to experienced international players certainly has its benefits.

“If I’m looking for help with something related to those in-game pressure moments that are hard to recreate, the help of someone who has ‘been there, done that’ is invaluable.”

However, Walker also makes a sensible point that has been somewhat lost in the conversation since the HPCP was announced.

“There are a lot of former players that have a lot to offer,” Walker told From the Hack, “but there’s an art to coaching and I don’t think every former player necessarily has that.”

Ultimately, it will be up to the teams to identify the former players that work best for their team because Lang has confirmed that the HPCP Panel will not serve as “matchmaker” between teams and potential coaches.

According to Walker, the HPCP certainly offers teams with more coaching options but teams will have to do their due diligence:

“I think it also comes down to finding the right fit,” Walker told From the Hack, “there are some great coaches out there (former players or local coaches) that won’t mesh with your team and it can take time to find one that works.”

The High-Performance Consulting Program’s Panel is currently accepting applications from curlers, past and present, that meet their criteria which includes – winning a Scotties, Brier, Canada Cup, Olympic Trials OR three Grand Slam events (…not including alternate players).

When asked if the HPCP Panel would consider individuals that do not fit the criteria, Lang indicated that they would not. Anyone that doesn’t meet the criteria will be required to get their proper NCCP accreditation before being allowed on the bench at national and international events.

“We had to draw the line somewhere,” Lang said, “and we wanted to make sure that anyone approved through the HPCP had experienced success at the highest levels”.

From the Hack did a quick count dating back to 1980 and over 200 individuals, men and women, qualify under the HPCP criteria which means that numerous Canadian teams will now have access to potential coaches that can provide insight into what it takes to compete, and win at the national and international levels.  

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How Curling Canada’s “High-Performance Consulting Program” could impact teams across Canada